Wishing to Stay in Safety: It is Good to Be Here

Today in the Orthodox Church we celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord, reading the account from Matthew 17:1-9.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellingshere, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) reflects on the  Apostle Peter and his recorded reaction to experiencing the Transfiguration.

“What, then, does rash Peter say? ‘It is good for us to be here!’ For since he has heard that Jesus had to depart for Jerusalem and to suffer, but fears and trembles still for his sake, even after Jesus’ rebuke, he does not dare to approach him and say the same thing again, ‘Far be it from you!’ But speaking from that same fear, he again hints the same thing in different words. For since he saw the mountain, its great remoteness and its deserted character, he got the idea that there was a strong prospect of safety here, due to the place itself – and not just from the place, but from his never leaving it to go to Jerusalem. For he wanted Jesus to remain there always, that is why he mentions tents. For if this were to happen, he is saying, we shall not go up to Jerusalem, and if we do not go up, he will not die, it is there, after all, that he said the scribes would attack him. But he does not dare say this outright. Wanting to bring it about, however, he says with assurance, ‘It is good for us to be here,’ where Moses and Elijah are present: Elijah, who drew fire down on a mountaintop, and Moses, who entered into darkness to speak with God – no one will have any idea where we are![…]

Then, to make clear that they were seized by great fear, both Peter and the others, Luke says: ‘They were heavy with sleep; and when they woke, they saw his glory.’ By ‘sleep’ here he means the heavy drowsiness that had come over them as a result of that vision. For they experienced something like what we feel, when our eyes are dimmed by overpowering brightness. It was not night, after all, but day; and the excess of splendor weighed down the weakness of their eyes.[…]And Peter said, ‘Let us build three tents,’ but Jesus himself revealed the tent not made by hands. Therefore we find earlier smoke and mist, but here ineffable light, and a voice.” (Light on The Mountain: Greek Patristic and Byzantine Homilies on the Transfiguration of the Lord, pp 74-77)

St. John Chrysostom portrays St. Peter as still trying to protect Christ from any threat of death.   Peter’s interest in staying on the mountain is that it is a safe place, and they are hidden from the world.  Chrysostom thinks Peter has learned his lesson from an earlier rebuke from Jesus, and so is wise enough not to say directly what he is thinking.  Peter wanted what many Christians wish – not to be struggling in a world which is hostile or in which there is suffering and sorrow.  Peter wishes to be in Paradise, but the Transfiguration occurs in this world and gives us the strong indication that Christ intended to save the world, not save us from the world.  We are called by Christ to be a light to the world, while still in the world rather than shining some spotlight down on earth from a safe heavenly place.  It is a much more difficult calling than simply becoming some angel in heaven.

Being Transformed by Christmas

“We have seen how the Holy Fathers regard the Transfiguration of Christ as an example of seeing the true nature of Christ. They taught that the real transfiguration occurred with the eyes of the disciples. When our eyes are opened, when we see through them and not with them, the world is transformed. We begin seeing ourselves, others, and nature as we are supposed to see them: icons of the transcendent God. We were not created to experience life as an endless series of days, filled with monotony and boredom. Through the Incarnation, Christ has restored meaning and beauty to the fallen world. And while we may not always experience life as meaningful or beautiful, we must remind ourselves and, with faith, believe that there is more to our lives than what meets the eye; there is more to our world than what we see when our hearts are impure and divided. God’s creation, both nature and man, are icons of the transcendent God. Through sin these icons may lose their luster, but they are icons nonetheless. Our priestly calling is not only to recognize this truth but to fulfill it: to be transformed and to transform the world around us.” (David Beck, For They Shall See God, pp 39-40)

Christ Transfigured

“It is elaborated in the hymnography and icons for the feast of the Transfiguration, which emphasize the transfigured, or deified, state of Christ’s humanity. St. Gregory of Nazianzus believes that the light that shines in Christ’s face, body and garments represents  nothing less than his divinity, while St. John of Damascus refers to the ‘splendor of the divine nature’ and to the ‘timeless glory of God the Son’ in his homily on the Transfiguration. Icons of the Transfiguration depict the transfigured Christ standing on Mt. Tabor in a shining garment.” (Mariamna Fortounatto and Mary B. Cunningham in The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, p 141)

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,  and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”  (Colossians 1:15-20)

 

Hymns from the Transfiguration (2013)

Some of the festal hymns in the Orthodox tradition offer particularly insightful ideas that help us understand in unique ways the significance of the Feast.  The hymns are theologically inspired by the Scriptures.  Take for example a festal hymn from the  Transfiguration, Litya of Vespers (the hymn text is in ALL CAPS).

CHRIST, THE LIGHT THAT SHONE BEFORE THE SUN, WAS ON THE EARTH IN THE FLESH.

In Genesis 1:3, God calls light into existence before the sun was created.  God’s first spoken Word is “let there be light.”  This hymn from Transfiguration identifies Jesus who is transfigured on earth as the same Word and Light of God that existed with God the Father before anything else was made.  “Light” thus has a symbolic value as well in Genesis and is a revelation of God Himself.  The light with which Christ shone at the Transfiguration is this light which is other than sunlight.  The hymn actually identifies Christ as this uncreated light which shone before there was a sun.

IN A MANNER FITTING HIS DIVINE MAJESTY, HE FULFILLED HIS FEARFUL DISPENSATION BEFORE HIS CRUCIFIXION!  TODAY UPON MOUNT TABOR HE HAS MYSTICALLY MADE KNOWN THE IMAGE OF THE TRINITY.

In the event of the Transfiguration, the three chosen disciples are enabled to see Jesus in His divine glory.  But it is also a glimpse into the nature of humanity.  For humans were created in the image and likeness of God, and suddenly the apostles are seeing this glory of God’s image in man when they see Jesus in His divine glory!  Humans were originally created as glorious beings, a glory which they had lost as a result of sin.  [The nakedness they experience after the Fall was the realization of the glory which they had lost, at least according to some Patristic writers.]  Now the disciples see the glory of God in the man, Jesus.  And they begin to see how the image of God in man is that of Christ.  To see the glorious image of God in any human being is to see Christ in His glory.

FOR TAKING APART THE EXPRESSLY CHOSEN DISCIPLES, PETER, JAMES AND JOHN, HE LED THEM UP INTO THE MOUNTAIN ALONE. BRIEFLY, HE CONCEALED THE FLESH HE HAD ASSUMED, AND WAS TRANSFIGURED BEFORE THEM, MANIFESTING THE ORIGINAL BEAUTY, THOUGH SHORT OF FULL PERFECTION.  FOR HE SPARED THEM AS HE ASSURED THEM, LEST SEEING, THEY DIE. YET THEY SAW AS FAR AS THEY COULD BEAR IT.

The interesting phrase is  “Briefly, He concealed the flesh had had assumed…”   Rather than saying He revealed His divinity, the hymn has Christ briefly   concealing His flesh so that He could be seen as He is.  And what Christ shows according to this hymn is “the original beauty” – Christ reveals to the three disciples the glory that humanity once possessed in the beginning, before the Fall.  They saw humanity in Christ as God originally created it!   They hymn implies that this sight of glorious humanity is overwhelming for us even to see today.   So however glorious Christ appeared, the disciples were not capable of seeing the fullness of this revelation.  They saw as much as they were able to bear.

And perhaps for any of us to see the glory which we as humans were given by God is too overwhelming for us.  It would overcome us to realize what we have lost.  And yet this “loss” is the very thing Christ is restoring to humanity.  Christ comes to restore us to our full humanity, and to reunite us to the glory which God gave us from the beginning.

In John 17:5, Christ’s prayer is that the Father will glorify Him with the glory which He had before the world was made.  Christ emptied Himself of that glory to become incarnate (Philippians 2:5-9), but at the Transfiguration we see the glory of God revealed in Christ.  Jesus shows us what it is to be fully human.  Christ is the image of God which each human bears.

Prophet Elijah

HE LIKEWISE CALLED BEFORE HIM THE CHIEF PROPHETS MOSES AND ELIJAH, WHO TESTIFIED TO HIS DIVINITY: THAT HE IS INDEED THE TRUE BRIGHTNESS OF THE ESSENCE OF THE FATHER, THE RULER OF THE LIVING AND THE DEAD.

Christ in this hymn is revealed to the disciples as “the true brightness of the essence of the Father.”  This is a most profound revelation which entailed Moses and Elijah bearing witness to the truth for without their witness the three disciples would not have been able to comprehend what they were seeing.  They were encountering the incomprehensible in God, and Moses and Elijah were there to help them make sense of the theology.

THEREFORE, A CLOUD COVERED THEM AS A TENT, AND THERE CAME THE VOICE OF THE FATHER IN TESTIMONY, SAYING:  THIS IS MY BELOVED SON, WHOM I HAVE BEGOTTEN WITHOUT CHANGE FROM THE WOMB BEFORE THE MORNING STAR: I HAVE SENT HIM TO SAVE THOSE WHO ARE BAPTIZED IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AND WHO CONFESS WITH FAITH THAT THE ONE POWER OF THE GODHEAD IS INDIVISIBLE: LISTEN TO HIM!

Christ and Moses

The cloud covering them as a tent is reminiscent of God’s glory covering the tent in Exodus 40:34-35 –  “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.  And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.”   Except in the Transfiguration Moses enters the cloud and is with God face to face.   The Transfiguration is helping us to understand Moses’ encounters with the glory of God in the Tent of the Meeting as well as when Moses was on top of the Holy Mountain receiving the Ten Commandments.

CHRIST OUR GOD, SUPREME IN GOODNESS AND THE LOVER OF MANKIND: SHINE UPON US WITH THE LIGHT OF YOUR UNAPPROACHABLE GLORY AND MAKE US WORTHY TO INHERIT YOUR ETERNAL KINGDOM!

The hymn does not leave us only contemplating what the three disciples saw 2000 years ago, but asks God to reveal His glory to us today.  This is where commemoration and participation merge together in liturgy.  We remember these saving events of Christ’s life in the liturgy of the Church where we also participate in the events.

One other Transfiguration Hymn from Canticle Eight of Matins, which also helps us appreciate the theological depth of the events in Christ’s life.   This hymn also declares Christ to be the Light of the world (John 8:12).

WHEN THE INFINITE LIGHT THAT KNOWS NO EVENING,

The verse refers to Christ who is being called the infinite light and is taken from Revalation 22:5 – “And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”

THE BRIGHTNESS OF THE FATHER WHO GIVES SPLENDOR TO CREATION,

Christ in the above second verse of the hymn is the brightness of the Father.    We get the imagery from Revalation 21:23 –  “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.”

APPEARED INEFFABLY IN UNAPPROACHABLE GLORY ON MOUNT TABOR, IT MADE MEN DIVINE AS THEY SANG: ALL WORKS OF THE LORD, BLESS THE LORD!

It is Christ who appears on Mount Tabor in the Transfiguration story.  Christ shows His glory at the Transfiguration, a glory He had with the Father before the world was made, a glory which the Trinity had shared with Eve and Adam in Paradise.  That glory is also the divine glory which we understand to be what God bestows on us in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Experiencing the Transfiguration

The  Feast of the Transfiguration is one of two of the Orthodox Church’s Major Feasts which are celebrated in August.  The Feast commemorates the events of Christ’s life describe in Matthew 17:1-9. While we celebrate the events liturgically, commemorating a past historical event in the life of our Savior, we participate in and experience the Transfiguration in our personal lives.

 “The imagery of transfiguration is also extended by St. John to the life of the Church: ‘Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3:2). And in a similar way St. Paul links the tradition of the radiant face of Moses to the transformation of the lives of Christians: ‘And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit’ (2 Corinthians 3:18), and he can say this because of what has been revealed in Christ: ‘For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness”, who has shone in our heart to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6). We can see how the language of glory is closely linked to the language of transformation in the New Testament, and this is particularly conspicuous in the Transfiguration itself; in fact St Luke actually says ‘they saw his glory’ (9:32), an expression very reminiscent of John 1:14” (John Baggley, Festival Icons for the Christian Year, pg. 63)

One of the theological themes of the Feast is that Christ revealed Himself as he is to His disciples – in His divine glory.  In so doing, Christ also revealed the real relationship between humanity and divinity.

“He who once spoke through symbols to Moses on Sinai,

Saying, ‘I am he who is’,

Was transfigured today upon Mount Tabor before the disciples;

And in his own person he showed them the nature of man,

Arrayed in the original beauty of the image.”

(Orthodox Hymns for the Feast in The Time of the Spirit: Readings Throughout the Christian Year, pg. 221)

Transfiguring Suffering

“To be a Christian is to share, at one and the same time, in the self-emptying and sacrifice of the Cross, and in the overwhelming joy of the Transfiguration and the Resurrection.

To be transfigured with Christ does not mean that we escape all suffering; it means that we are to find transfiguration in the suffering.

The transfigured Christ offers not a way around but through.”

(Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia, In Communion, Fall 2006, pgs. 7-8)

God Making His Creation New

Galatians 6:14-16

But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation. And as many as walk according to this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.

Elizabeth Theokritoff writes:

“What we see in the Fathers is a recognition that the ‘form of this world’ is indeed passing away – but the form, not the world itself. It ‘passes away’ to be replaced with a reality corresponding to God’s original intention; and this reality has a place for material creation, even if what this  might actually look like remains a mystery. To say this is to affirm the lasting, ‘ultimate’ value of the world that God created and ‘saw that it was good.’” (Living in God’s Creation, pg. 39)

Macro Photography

In my recent walks I decided to try using only my macro lens to see what I could see.

The first photo is looking straight down on a cone flower.  Below are two other views of the same flower.

The macro photos give us unique views of something familiar.   The beauty of God’s creation makes it worth taking the time to STOP, and smell the flowers, but also to allow their beauty to enter into eyes and minds as well.

The colors and shapes catch not only the eyes of the insects which the flowers rely on to pollinate themselves, but it catches the eye of those who can appreciate delicate beauty as well.  This is a unique gift in the animal world.

Insects in their variety and variation are every bit as fascinating as the flowers, though most of us don’t appreciate the annoying creatures much, the plant life and flowers are dependent on insect pollinators for their survival.  The works of God are manifold and wisely brought together.

Perspective is always important – not only in photography but just in understanding issues or other people.  When we look at the same thing from different perspectives we grow in our knowledge and understanding of God’s universe.  We come to appreciate the depth of truth, as is revealed in so many passages of Scripture.

There are also mysteries to behold in this tiny world.  Those tiny gold beads, apparently linked together were as tiny as dew droplets, yet they caught my eye.  What they are is unknown to me, but I admire the unknown anyway, and the Creator too who puts such variety under every leaf or stem.

What follows is a few more photos, just to enjoy.

I have not been blessed with any artistry of any sort – I’m not a creator of beauty, or of handiwork which others can admire.  I try to capture by camera that fleeting beauty which speaks of its eternal Creator.

I see what God has planted on earth, beauty in things that fade away, season by season, they come and go.  I cannot add to the natural beauty of the earth, but can point it out to others.

I stop for a moment captivated by that beauty which is not frozen in time but fading away even as I look at it.  I attempt to capture that glorious and natural beauty preserving it for a longer time.  That moment digitally preserved has passed, and I too pass on, our paths having crossed in space and time, as God ordained.   I don’t want to miss that moment He created for us on earth.

You can view my recent sets of Macro Photograph at either of the addresses below.  You need only click on the “Slideshow” button above the thumbnail photos to view all of the pictures I took with the Macro Lens.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/frted/sets/72157627343602610/with/6003755373/

and

http://www.flickr.com/photos/frted/sets/72157627181294599/

 

The Transfiguration: The Salvation of the Physical World

“…Let us reflect on the basic significance of the mystery of Christ’s Transfiguration. It shows us that matter can be transfused into spirit. It shows us, that is to say, how material things – not only Christ’s face, hands and feet, but also his clothes; and not only the body of Christ, but also those of the three disciples upon whom the rays of light fall; and not they alone, but likewise the grass, trees, flowers and rocks of the mountainside which also share in the radiance that emanates from Christ – all these can be transformed, rendered luminous, filled with translucence and glory. The Transfiguration reveals the Spirit-bearing potentialities of all material things.

Christ, so the event on Mount Tabor makes clear, came to save not our souls alone, but also our bodies. Moreover, we human beings are not saved from but with the world. In and through Christ – and, by virtue of Christ’s grace, in and through each one of us – the whole material creation, as Saint Paul expresses it, ‘will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.’ [Romans 8:12]”   (Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia in In Communion – Journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and the Protection of the Mother of God – Fall 2006, pg.4)

The Prophet Elijah

July 20 is the day on which in the Orthodox Church we commemorate the Holy Prophet Elijah.  Many years to all who bear his name – Elijah, Elias.

“Grace begins to operate in people during prayer in different ways, for, as the apostle says, the Spirit distributes Himself as He will in a variety of modes, and is perceived and known correspondingly (Heb. 2:4). Elijah the Tishbite serves here as an example for us (Kings 19:11-12). In some the Spirit appears as a whirlwind of awe, dissolving the mountains of the passions and shattering the rocks of our hardened hearts, so that our worldly self is transpierced and mortified. In others the Spirit appears as an earthquake, that is to say as a sense of inward jubilation or what the fathers more clearly define as a sense of exultation. In others He is manifested inwardly as a fire that is non-material yet real; for what is unreal and imaginary is also non-existent. Finally, in others – particularly in those well advanced in prayer – God produces a gentle and serene flow of light. This is when Christ comes to dwell in the heart, as St. Paul says (Eph 3:17), mystically disclosing Himself through the Holy Spirit. That is why God said to Elijah on Mount Horeb that the Lord was not in this or in that – not in the particular actions He manifests Himself in to beginners – but in the gentle flow of light; for it is in this that He attest the perfection of our prayer. (St. Gregory of Sinai in The Philokalia Volume Four, pgs. 285-286)